Social and economic empowerment

Page contents

Social empowerment

Social empowerment is understood as the process of developing a sense of autonomy and self-confidence, and acting individually and collectively to change social relationships and the institutions and discourses that exclude poor people and keep them in poverty. Poor people’s empowerment, and their ability to hold others to account, is strongly influenced by their individual assets (such as land, housing, livestock, savings) and capabilities of all types: human (such as good health and education), social (such as social belonging, a sense of identity, leadership relations) and psychological (self-esteem, self-confidence, the ability to imagine and aspire to a better future). Also important are people’s collective assets and capabilities, such as voice, organisation, representation and identity.

Blomkvist, H., 2003, ‘Social Capital, Political Participation, and the Quality of Democracy in India’, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia Mariott Hotel, Philadelphia, PA
Is government responsiveness to citizen’s demands affected by different types of political participation? Is responsiveness affected by social interaction and does it depend on historically evolved political structures? This paper from Uppsala University, Sweden draws on evidence gathered from 3,200 personal interviews with citizens in five Indian states; Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala and West Bengal in exploring these questions.
Access full text: available online

Poor people’s involvement in local associations and inter-community cooperation mechanisms can contribute to social empowerment by improving their skills, knowledge and self-perception. Local associations also act as self-help mechanisms through which poor people organise their economic activities, such as farming cooperatives, or microfinance groups.

Goetz, A. M., and Jenkins, R., 2002, ‘Voice, Accountability and Human Development: The Emergence of a New Agenda’, Background Paper for the Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy, UNDP, New York
This study examines the multiple dimensions of accountability and surveys the experiments that have sought to implement a new, expanded accountability agenda. The new agenda seeks a more direct role for ordinary people and their associations in demanding accountability across a more diverse set of jurisdictions. It uses a broader repertoire of methods, and is based on a more exacting standard of social justice. However, this agenda must be actively shaped if it is to have a positive impact on human development.
Access full text: available online

Alatas, V., Pritchett, L. and Wetterberg, A., 2002, ‘Voice Lessons: Local Government Organizations, Social Organizations, and the Quality of Local Governance’ World Bank Working Paper 2981, Washington, D.C.
Is all citizen participation a good thing? Or, do certain types of citizen participation improve local governance more than others? This paper, coming out of the World Bank’s Local Level Institutions study of local life in villages in rural Indonesia, examines the relationship between the involvement of villagers in social activities and the quality of local governance. Local governance indicators consist of the ability of the community to participate in village decisions, voice their opinion about village problems and access information about village funds, in addition to the perceived responsiveness of the village government to citizens’ problems. It finds that household involvement in social organisations, such as religious organisations, youth groups and credit unions, has a more positive net effect on local governance than does involvement in village government organisations. This suggests that greater attention should be paid to how local level participation is structured, rather than merely creating local participation mechanisms.
Access full text: available online

It is also important to recognise that associational life at the local level takes place predominantly within the informal sphere, such as religious organisations, traditional and customary institutions, and informal community?based groups. It is these organisations that exert the most influence on poor people’s lives.

Unsworth, S. (ed.), 2010, ‘An Upside Down View of Governance’, Centre for the Future State, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
How can effective, accountable public authority be increased? This paper synthesises research findings from the Centre for the Future State. It explores how public authority is created through processes of bargaining between state and society actors, and the interaction of formal and informal institutions. Findings highlight the need for a fundamental reassessment of existing assumptions about governance and development. Informal institutions and personalised relationships are pervasive and powerful, but they can contribute to progressive as well as to regressive outcomes. Rather than focusing on rules-based reform, policymakers should consider using indirect strategies to influence local actors.
Access full text: available online

Vulnerable groups, such as the very poor, women and marginalised communities can often lack the skills and confidence to engage in community decision-making. It may therefore be important to support mechanisms designed to specifically target marginalised groups in order to ensure that they can participate. It is argued that participation in local associations can empower poor people to engage in public politics and collective action. However, research shows that building individual and collective capacities to engage is a long-term process.

Kabeer, N., with A. H. Kabir and T. Y. Huq, 2009, ‘Quantifying the Impact of Social Mobilisation in Rural Bangladesh: Donors, Civil Society and ‘The Road not Taken”, Working Paper 333, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Brighton
What impact can social mobilisation NGOs have on democratic knowledge, practice and engagement? International donors have increasingly encouraged development NGOs to take up a service delivery function, to the detriment of social mobilisation functions. This paper reports on a quantitative study of the impact of an NGO in Bangladesh, Nijera Kori (NK), which prioritises rights, social mobilisation and solidarity. The results of NK’s focus have important implications for enhanced democratic accountability and suggest an alternative civil society approach to improving democratic citizenship.
Access full text: available online

The following article aims to empirically test the extent to which participation in associations increases what the authors terms ‘active citizenship’ – that is, citizen efforts to directly engage with public officials in order to secure access to public goods and services.

Houtzager, P. P., and Acharya, A. K., 2010, Associations, active citizenship, and the quality of democracy in Brazil and Mexico’, Theory and Society
To what extent does participation in associations increase active citizenship? How does associationalism impact on the quality of citizenship? Civic engagement theory suggests that associations empower members to engage in public politics and improve the quality of democracy. Empirical demonstration of this argument outside affluent countries is rare, however, and so this paper examines associationalism in São Paulo and Mexico City. It finds that associationalism leads to higher levels of active citizenship, but does not improve the quality of citizenship practices.
Access full text: available online

For more information on barriers to achieving capabilities, please see the GSDRC’s Social Exclusion Topic Guide.

Economic empowerment

Economic empowerment is thought to allow poor people to think beyond immediate daily survival and to exercise greater control over both their resources and life choices. For example, it enables households to make their own decisions around making investments in health and education, and taking risks in order to increase their income. There is also some evidence that economic empowerment can strengthen vulnerable groups’ participation in the decision-making. For example, microfinance programmes have been shown to bolster women’s influence within the household and marketplace. The evidence also suggests that economic power is often easily ‘converted’ into increased social status or decision-making power.

The literature on economic empowerment is vast, and a large part of this focuses on the economic empowerment of women – a key strategy in addressing gender inequality. More generally, the discourse on economic empowerment centres around four broad areas: a) the promotion of the assets of poor people; b) transformative forms of social protection; c) microfinance; and d) skills training.

Eyben, R., Kabeer, N., Cornwall, A., 2008, ‘Conceptualising Empowerment and the Implications for Pro-Poor Growth’, Paper prepared for the DAC Poverty Network by the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
This paper proposes a framework to enable the empowerment of the poor to be conceptually understood and operationally explored. It examines the different facets of ‘social’, ‘economic’ and ‘political’ empowerment. International development actors often lack awareness of much that is already known about these issues. These are the conceptual tools for identifying complex and mutually dependent processes that development actors can support and facilitate for achieving pro-poor growth.
Access full text: available online

DAC Network on Gender Equality, 2011, ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment: Issues Paper’, OECD Publishing, Paris
In 2007-08, of the USD 22 billion aid (average per year) committed to the economic and productive sectors by OECD Development Assistance Committee members, USD 4.6 billion targeted gender equality and women’s empowerment. Much of this focused on gender equality in agriculture and rural development. Only small shares of aid targeted gender equality and women’s empowerment in mining, construction, transport/storage (including road building), energy, communications and trade. This paper highlights the need for innovative approaches and partnerships to scale up women’s economic empowerment.
Access full text: available online

Golla, A. M., Malhotra, A., Nanda, P. and Mehra, R., 2011, ‘Understanding and Measuring Women’s Economic Empowerment: Definition, Framework and Indicators’, International Center for Research on Women
This paper provides a framework to guide the design, implementation and evaluation of economic advancement programmes.
Access full text: available online

Kabeer, N., Mahmud, S. and Tasneem, S. 2011, ‘Does Paid Work Provide a Pathway to Women’s Empowerment? Empirical Findings from Bangladesh’, Working Paper 375, IDS, Brighton
This paper uses a combination of survey data and qualitative interviews to explore the impact of paid work on various indicators of women’s empowerment, ranging from shifts in intra-household decision-making processes to women’s participation in public life. It finds that forms of work that offer regular and relatively independent incomes hold the greatest transformative potential.
Access full text: available online

Bertini, C. and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2011, ‘Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies’, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
This report highlights how adolescent girls, as the backbone of rural economies, have power­ful potential to be agents of economic and social growth and change. The report highlights ways in which governments and bilateral donors can better support rural girls’ personal and professional empowerment.
Access full text: available online

Malhotra, A., et al., 2009, ‘Innovation for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality’, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Washington D.C.
Access full text: available online

Broadbent, E., 2010, ‘Helpdesk Research Report: Access to Economic Opportunities and Changes in Power Relations’, Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham
The range of interventions relevant to this question is extremely broad, and this review therefore presents a limited number of examples in the following areas: microfinance, cash transfers, technology and skills development, labour market interventions, and land and inheritance rights. Research into the impacts of interventions aimed at increasing access to economic opportunities mostly exists in relation to women’s empowerment, and even then the impacts are rarely expressed in terms of ‘power relations’. In this review the bulk of the interventions presented are aimed at women (who are also often further marginalised by their location and class).
Access full text: available online

Land and property rights

Land and property rights, especially for women, are considered an important way of addressing underlying economic, social and political inequalities. Addressing entitlements to land has been shown to improve productivity and access to credit, increase income, and encourage social and economic investments in land and property as well as education, health or other income-generating activities. In contexts where the management of natural resources may pose problems, empowering communities through land titling or investing ownership with private entities, mandatory consultations and benefit-sharing, mandatory social impact assessments, cash or in-kind compensations, and legal redress for damage to property are a central focus of discussions.

UN Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, 2008, ‘Empowering the Poor Through Property Rights’, In Making the Law Work for Everyone Volume II, United Nations Development Programme, New York, pp.64-128
What are the key components of a fully functional property system and what dysfunctionalities limit fair access to property? How can property systems be reformed in a way that enables the poor to access and secure property? This chapter suggests that a pro-poor reform strategy for effectively functioning property systems should be based on land tenure security, the creation of opportunity for investment, and adequate management of risk.
Access full text: available online

Kanji, N., Cotula, L., Hilhorst, T., Toulmin, C., and Witten, W., 2005, ‘Can Land Registration Serve Poor and Marginalised Groups?’ Summary Report, Research Report 1, Securing Land Rights in Africa, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), London
This research examines the current processes of land rights registration in Ethiopia, Ghana and Mozambique and assesses their outcomes for vulnerable groups. It shows that land registration is not inherently anti-poor. The distributional consequences of land registration depend on the design of the registration process and of the institutions responsible for its management. It is important to design land registration systems that secure the land rights of marginalised groups in specific geographic and historical contexts, rather than adopting blueprint solutions based on Western models.
Access full text: available online

Cotula, L., 2007, ‘Legal Empowerment for Local Resource Control: Securing Local Resource Rights within Foreign Investment Projects in Africa’, International Institute for Environment and Development, London
How can the benefits to local groups of foreign investment into local resources be maximised and the costs minimised? This study analyses legal tools that have been used in several African countries to secure the resource rights of local groups affected by foreign investment projects. Empowerment can occur through opening to negotiation decisions that were previously closed to local groups, or by providing local groups with tools to aid their negotiations with external actors.
Access full text: available online

Keita, A., et al, 2008, ‘Legal Tools for Citizen Empowerment: Increasing Local Participation and Benefit in Mali’s Mining Sector’, International Institute for Environment and Development, London
Access full text: available online

Broadbent, E., 2010, ‘Land and Property Rights Interventions for Pro-Poor Outcomes’, Helpdesk Research Report, Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham
A review of past and existing interventions suggests the importance of the following design and implementation issues: sustaining significant government commitment; supporting land and property rights interventions with wider efforts to promote good governance, reform rural areas and livelihoods, mitigate the negative effects of urbanisation, and tackle problems in the labour market; mainstreaming gender concerns; supporting interventions with comprehensive education, awareness and training activities to ensure that the population – including government officials – understand what land and property rights are; being aware of and sensitive to existing legal systems (e.g. customary law); and considering the impact of interventions on non-beneficiaries.
Access full text: available online

For more information please see the Access to justice and Human rights, gender, and social exclusion sections of the GSDRC’s Justice Topic Guide.

Social protection

Social protection is increasingly being discussed in terms of its potential to bring about transformational change to the status and opportunities of marginalised groups. Social protection schemes are believed to empower poor people by helping them to adopt strategies to balance their immediate needs with their investments in future livelihoods. They enable people to invest in more productive, but also riskier, activities such as entrepreneurship or keeping their children in school. Social protection mechanisms are particularly important for those who do not have the means even to save small amounts. There is evidence that social protection interventions have: promoted investments in children’s human capital and capabilities; increased the productivity of household livelihood efforts; contributed to a sense of inclusion and citizenship; mobilised the poor around entitlement claims; and impacted the local economy.

Cook, S. and Kabeer, N., 2009, ‘Socio-economic Security over the Life Course: A Global Review of Social Protection’, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
This paper draws on a series of regional studies to provide an overview of the current field of social protection. It suggests that social protection needs to move beyond risk management and safety nets to support productive or developmental trajectories out of poverty that can strengthen citizenship rights and claims to security. Innovative, more developmental social protection approaches adapted to particular contexts are emerging around the world. However, greater attention should be paid to the political economy of redistributive policies, the challenge of financing such policies, and their implications for the social contract between state and citizens. The state has a key role in coordinating inclusive social protection provision.
Access full text: available online

Lund, F., 2009, ‘Social Protection and the Informal Economy: Linkages and Good Practices for Poverty Reduction and Empowerment’, in Promoting Pro-Poor Growth: Social Protection, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Geneva, pp.69-88
How can social protection in developing countries empower people to create employment-related ways out of poverty? This paper examines empowerment in the context of social protection for informal workers. It argues that social protection can help to improve the health and well-being of informal sector workers, especially poorer women, and build their capacity to organise and demand better working conditions. Interventions must consider the sector’s diversity, its permanence, and the limited choices that drive people to work in it.
Access full text: available online

Cash transfers are thought to promote self-esteem, status and empowerment amongst vulnerable people, enabling them to become active members of their households and communities, rather than perceived as ‘burdens’. There is strong evidence, for example, that cash transfers can address age-based social exclusion. Research has found that social pensions in Namibia and Lesotho have improved the status of older people without relatives, who otherwise have been isolated and excluded from community life. Cash transfers are also regarded as a particularly effective way of empowering women and girls within the household. By addressing gender imbalances in access to economic resources, and putting cash directly in the hands of women, cash transfers can increase women’s bargaining power within the home and improve intra-household allocation of resources. However, it is argued that conditional cash transfers (CCTs) (requiring that children are taken to school and for health check-ups) reinforce gender stereotypes of women as responsible for the household, while men maintain a role as income earners. Overall, the evidence on the impact of cash transfer programmes on empowerment is still patchy.

Arnold, C., Conway, T. and Greenslade, M., 2011, ‘Cash Transfers: Evidence Paper’, Department for International Development, London
What impact do cash transfers have on reducing poverty and increasing the resilience of poor households? This paper assesses the evidence and looks at the extent to which it can be generalised. It shows how design and financing features help to maximise transfers’ effectiveness in a range of circumstances. Ultimately, cash transfers work as part of a broader strategy to achieve economic and social development.
Access full text: available online

Molyneux, M., 2008, ‘Conditional Cash Transfers: a Pathway to Women’s Empowerment?’ Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Working Paper 5, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
Are Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) really providing long-term empowerment to women? If CCTs do little to promote the empowerment of women might they even be making things worse? This review of CCTs, particularly of PROGRESA in Mexico, argues that although these programmes are widely replicated due to their perceived positive impact in reducing poverty, they reinforce asymmetric gender roles. Women involved in the programmes report that, in general, they experience greater self-esteem, well being and autonomy. However, the programmes’ gender bias reinforces the position of women as mothers, tying them more closely to the home.
Access full text: available online

Concern Worldwide and Oxfam GB, 2011, ‘Walking the Talk: Cash Transfers and Gender Dynamics’, Concern Worldwide and Oxfam GB, London
Do cash transfers (CTs) in emergency contexts currently benefit women and contribute to women’s empowerment? How can NGOs and donors develop more gender-sensitive CT programmes that help to redress inequality and work towards empowerment? This report examines the impacts of cash transfers on gender dynamics within households and communities. It finds mixed impacts and insufficient consideration of gender inequality and gender analysis in programme processes. To realise the potential value of CTs for women, NGOs and donors need to ensure, for example, that all emergency responses include a gender and social analysis; that clear and attainable gender aims are specified for each stage of the intervention; and that more investment is made in staff training.
Access full text: available online

McDevitt, A., 2010, ‘Helpdesk Research Report: Promoting the Economic Participation of Women’, Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham
Facilitating the participation of women in economic life is seen to provide financial gain at both household and national level, as well as having long-term impacts upon poverty reduction through creating changes in the intergenerational transmission of poverty processes. However, enabling women to participate in economic life is subject to both formal and informal constraints: women face various institutional barriers, as well as discrimination played out within social relations. Removing these barriers, and actively creating mechanisms through which women are able to add value to the economy, are explained in the following review in terms of: access to jobs, access to credit and financial services; land and property rights and; agricultural inputs and technology.
Access full text: available online

The paper below argues that while access to financial services and microfinance can and does make important contributions to the economic productivity and social well-being of poor women and their households, it does not automatically empower women.

Kabeer, N., 2005, ‘Is Microfinance a “Magic Bullet” for Women’s Empowerment? Analysis of Findings from South Asia’, Economic and Political Weekly, October 29 2005, pp. 4709-4718
Is microfinance a ‘magic bullet’ for women’s empowerment? This article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, India, examines the empirical evidence of the impact of microfinance on poverty reduction and the empowerment of poor women. Focusing on experiences in South Asia, it argues that while access to financial services can and does make important contributions to the economic productivity and social well-being of poor women and their households, it does not automatically empower women.
Access full text: available online

For more information on interventions designed to increase economic empowerment, please see the Types of Social Protection section of the GSDRC’s Social Protection Topic Guide.

Skills Training

Interventions which promote skills acquisition and training amongst marginalised groups (such as youths or informal workers) are another way of supporting empowerment. Gaining knowledge and skills is thought to alter people’s self-perceptions and status, whilst also increasing their employability and encouraging engaged citizenship.

Liimatainen, M-R., n.d., ‘Training and Skills Acquisition in the Informal Sector: A Literature Review’, Informal Economy Series, ILO, Geneva
Access full text: available online


Microfinance refers to financial services for those without access to traditional formal banking. It includes micro-credit (the provision of loans), micro-savings, insurance and money transfer services. Microfinance interventions have long been seen as a way of empowering people to invest in their futures and lift themselves out of poverty. However, there is a growing concern that the impact of microcredit and microloans on poor people’s empowerment may not be straightforward, and the emphasis on reaching the ‘poorest of the poor’ may be flawed.

Duvendack, M, et al., 2011, ‘What is the evidence of the impact of microfinance on the well-being of poor people?’ EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London
The report finds no robust evidence of positive impacts on women’s status, or girls’ enrolments, which may be partly due to these topics not being addressed in valid studies (RCTs and pipelines). This report shows that almost all impact evaluations of microfinance suffer from weak methodologies and inadequate data, reducing the reliability of impact estimates.
Access full text: available online

Stewart, R. et al, 2010, ‘What is the impact of microfinance on poor people? A systematic review of evidence from sub-Saharan Africa’ Technical Report, EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, University of London
This report finds that some people are made poorer, and not richer, by microfinance, particularly by micro-credit. This seems to be because: they consume more instead of investing in their futures; their businesses fail to produce enough profit to pay high interest rates; their investment in other longer-term aspects of their futures is not sufficient to give a return on their investment; and because the context in which microfinance clients live is by definition fragile. There is some evidence that microfinance enables poor people to be better placed to deal with shocks, but this is not universal.
Access full text: available online